Sheila Pepe

American Bardo, 2020

Collection of the Portland Museum of Art, Maine

Pepe: The Italian Problem

In September of 2019, I visited Naples for the very first time. The first work I made after my return home from an autumn in Italy was named precisely as the object came to mind: American Bardo. It’s a personal kneeler (or prie dieu) and a provocation to/from me as a Roman Catholic atheist. I know it to be the first in a series made to bring forward interlaced ideas that construct epistemologies concerning race and gender, culture, taste.

These ideas have been driving the work for years, even though the many fiber installations used feminism, class, and ethnicity as outward-facing issues. For years crocheting abstractions in space was my way to blend the Italian with the American. Some were ephemeral, cannibalized for new work, with a few made to be lasting, and shapeshifting. All worked only when attached to larger, existing structures. A feminist drive to honor the mother also meant a reveal of the assimilationist knots she tied in my head, least was claiming fictitious Northern-Italian roots or giving her three children names with Irish roots, thinking they were more Anglo. Her launch cast a trajectory she couldn’t imagine. I fell far from the apple, ambivalent about my roots, and trained to be highly adaptive to sites of pure Americanness.

In recent years I’ve immersed myself in Mediterranean histories, religions, and religious states. I see my own frightening Neapolitan roots more closely and their impact on my own learning and living. But the fact is, I am/not Italian.

I was invited to Italy as an artist for the first time in 2013 because of the photographer and documentarian, Paola Ferrario. Paola is Italian; her artist friends run the cultural center called Asilo Bianco in Piemonte. She made the invitation possible. She also took the photographs of work I made there, giving it a real Italian history, as if my mother’s northern dream came true. Paola lives here in the States and is married to an American woman. She made her own latter 20th century break from Italy, as an independent woman. But she is no assimilationist. She is complex, yet straightforward. She sees the world extremely well, and is one of the best photographers I know. The work and the woman are not nearly as well known as should be.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Isabel Wilkerson. says in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, it only took one generation for Italian Americans to become white. She’s right when it comes to the history lived by my family–I’m proof. But what about recent arrivals? Americans still don’t know what to do with immigrants in general, unless they accept the race roles, the capitalist norms, terms of U.S. politics and religious hierarchies and, say, rules of the market-driven art world. No matter what country you come from and what continent it’s on, the first step on this ground means we bow to the newest, and perhaps most dangerous kids on this earth: USA.

91 BCE, Not So Good for Emperors, 2017, foreground, Second Vatican Council Wrap, 2013

Collection of the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts

Put Me Down Gently, 2914/18 (partial view)

Installation at Bemis Center, Omaha, Nebraska, for the traveling exhibition, Hot Mess Formalism

Collection of the Everson Museum, Syracuse, New York

Sheila Pepe